Where to begin with Christopher Nolan

With BFI IMAX counting down to Oppenheimer with a season of his films, we take a non-chronological trip through the brain-scrambling blockbusters of Christopher Nolan.

10 April 2023

By Brogan Morris

The Prestige (2006)

Why this might not seem so easy

How hard could it be, approaching the work of a filmmaker as popular as Christopher Nolan? Raised on James Bond and Star Wars, on Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, Nolan channels those influences in tentpole pictures made on the largest achievable scale. Nolan’s numbers, at least – $5 billion in box office, for just 11 films (until this summer) – would suggest his unapologetic populism has made him among the most accessible directors at work today.

Tenet (2020)

This doesn’t mean Nolan serves straight comfort-food. Beneath the big-budget sugar-coating, Nolan’s films are intellectually and thematically serious: he has used a trilogy of superhero movies as a platform to interrogate the concepts of good and evil, made a deep-space adventure into a study of loss, and left the nature of reality itself an open question in not one but two mind-bending action epics.

Nolan’s films are rarely a picnic narratively, either. A typical Nolan film is a puzzle to be solved by the viewer, beginning ‘in medias res’ and subsequently jumping back and forth in a timeline until, jigsaw-like, the pieces begin to form a clearer whole. From his debut, Following (1998), a scrambled neo-noir with elements of Kafka, to his latest, Oppenheimer (2023), concerning the race to build the atomic bomb from the perspective of the physicist who both ‘fathered’ the weapon and declared its use immoral, Nolan has always asked his audience to put in some work for their entertainment.

The best place to start – Inception

Batman brought him into the realm of blockbuster filmmaking, but Nolan really came of age as a maximalist with Inception (2010). In a near-future where the technology to share dreams exists, a crew led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s master thief is tasked with planting an idea in the mind of a business heir (Nolan regular Cillian Murphy), a procedure that involves infiltrating his subconscious on multiple levels. This being a heist narrative, everything that can go wrong does; unlike in most heist movies, the plan going awry in Inception means gravity suddenly giving out during a fight scene, or a car crash on one level of subconscious causing an avalanche on the level below.

Inception (2010)

Nolan’s quintessential cerebral blockbuster, Inception has room in its multistoried dreamscape for all the director’s fixations: time and our perception of it, the power and fragility of the human mind, scientific innovation as a thing of both wonder and horror. Afforded the opportunity (and the budget) to realise any scenario imaginable, Nolan also lays out a smorgasbord of creative action sequences: a fistfight down a rotating corridor; a shootout in a great temple suddenly drowned in water; use of a magically conjured set of Penrose steps to despatch a villain. To get a sense of Nolan as both enigmatist and purveyor of large-scale entertainment, Inception is your best entry point.

What to watch next

Batman Begins (2005)

To Batman Begins (2005), Nolan brought experience probing psychologically and emotionally troubled protagonists in his earlier work for a Caped Crusader origin story that centred and humanised billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale); to The Dark Knight (2008), he brought an affection for Michael Mann and Sidney Lumet crime movies, for a Batman story actually about the soul of a city tested by an illogical evil (Heath Ledger’s anarchic nihilist Joker). Comic book movies with all the obligatory explosive setpieces – The Dark Knight’s truck-flipping car chase is a particular marvel – but also with a gravity and realism hitherto unknown to the genre, Nolan’s first two Batman films remain high watermarks of superhero cinema.

A lucky charm of sorts for Nolan, Michael Caine has featured in (and often played the moral compass of) every one of the director’s films since Batman Begins. Of them all, Caine gets his most substantial role in The Prestige (2006), in which he plays a London stage engineer caught up in the accelerating rivalry between two 19th-century magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale). Though at its dark heart a story of ruinous obsession, The Prestige is an elegant construction that, like the showmen at its centre, seeks to constantly misdirect and wrongfoot the audience for the sheer entertainment value of it.

Having gone large with the first two movies in his Batman trilogy, Nolan supersized with his last, The Dark Knight Rises (2012). For this mammoth finale, Nolan – a champion of traditional techniques known for shooting on film and realising effects in-camera – took inspiration from silent-era epics, the vast sets and legions of extras recalling such awesome practical spectacles as Intolerance (1916) and Metropolis (1927).

Interstellar (2014)

After The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan widened his scope again for Interstellar (2014), an intergalactic tour of new planets and unknown dimensions led by Matthew McConaughey’s homesick astronaut. Often characterised as a cool, analytical filmmaker, Nolan finds a strong emotional outlet here. Underlined by Hans Zimmer’s funereal organ score, Interstellar reflects mournfully on not just humanity’s potentially bleak future on a changing Earth but the relentless mortality that inevitably faces us all.

Dunkirk (2017)

Following the grandiosity of The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, Nolan pared back for something purer: a sub-two-hour Second World War suspense thriller that confirmed his evolution into a premier action director. Set in the spring of 1940, as British troops languish in a pocket of northern France while the German army approaches, Dunkirk (2017) takes place simultaneously over a week on the fateful beach, a day on one of the civilian boats sent to aid the evacuation and an hour in the air with the meagre RAF support. Conceived by Nolan as a third-act climax made feature-length, Dunkirk largely eschews his usual storytelling trickery (not to mention dialogue and character backstory) and zeroes in on a concern not intellectual but instinctual, being the animal will to survive.

Traces of film noir can be found throughout Nolan’s work, whether it’s in the underworld sleuthing of the Dark Knight trilogy and Tenet (2020) or the femme fatales of The Prestige and Inception. Nolan’s affinity for the genre is, however, clearest in his first three films, in which shady characters and shadowy machinations abound.

Memento (2000)

Following (1998), the black-and-white debut feature that Nolan shot on weekends for $6,000, unravels over a tight 70 minutes a bloody plot teased at the film’s beginning, while always keeping its largely nameless characters shrouded in mystery. With Memento (2000), Nolan went one better by creating a narrator unknowable even to himself. It remains Nolan’s ultimate structural puzzle: a film that runs backwards, revealing in reverse how Guy Pearce’s amnesiac antihero comes to killing a man in the opening scene.

Unmuddied by the non-linear storytelling of Following or Memento, Nolan’s third film, Insomnia (2002), is one of his most straightforward, though it isn’t lacking its own high-concept hook. Starring Al Pacino as a dirty cop in pursuit of a suspected killer (Robin Williams), the film’s setting, an Alaskan town where the sun never sets in summer, allows Nolan a few customary experiential flourishes, as Pacino’s sleep-deprived detective increasingly suffers from hallucinations in the endless daylight. The most conventional of Nolan’s noirs, Insomnia is still remarkable evidence of a director who, from a no-budget project made with friends to a starry studio property, has grown rapidly in confidence behind the camera.

Where not to start

Nolan’s fondness for outlandish set-pieces and exquisitely tailored leading men has made him a favourite to direct a future Bond movie, though notably the closest he’s got to one yet is also the trickiest film in his oeuvre. Like 007 refracted through a hard sci-fi lens, Tenet stars John David Washington as a CIA agent on the hunt for a time-travelling Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh), whose ability to reverse entropy allows Nolan the opportunity to play scenes backwards, forwards and often both at once.

Impeccable as bombastic action cinema, with Nolan crashing jet-liners and slinging characters up tower blocks, Tenet also doubles down on some of the director’s more esoteric tendencies: cryptic characterisation, byzantine plotting, a grave, nigh-on apocalyptic tone. Which is to say that Tenet is divisive: for Nolan sceptics frustrating, and for the director’s fans a distillation of what they adore about his brand of moviemaking.

BFI Player logo

Discover exceptional cinema

See something different on demand.

Start your free trial